Every season in anticipation of the college football season, our colleague Bruce Feldman publishes his annual “Freaks List” over on The Athletic. In his work, Feldman highlights some of the nation’s most gifted and dominant athletes, highlighting the 100 biggest “Freaks” in college football.
Heading into 2023, no team placed more athletes on Feldman’s list than the Penn State Nittany Lions. Given their recent track record, this looks more like the new expectation rather than a one-off in Happy Valley.
Penn State Dominates 2023 Freaks List: A Sign of the New Norm
The Penn State Nittany Lions have picked up hype throughout the 2023 offseason following the strong finish to their 2022 campaign. Their 11-2 season was their best since 2019, helping them finish seventh in the final AP Poll rankings.
The expectations are high in 2023 as the Nittany Lions came in at seventh in the Preseason AP Poll.
An influential factor in the public optimism for Penn State’s 2023 season is the talent on the roster, both on offense and defense.
Nowhere is this more plainly evident than on Feldman’s “Freaks List,” where the Nittany Lions reigned supreme. The team had six athletes who placed on Feldman’s top-100 list — all ranked in the top 50. Not only was six the most in the country this season, but it was the most players Feldman had ever ranked from the same team.
Penn State Players on Feldman’s Freaks List
The star of the list is edge rusher Chop Robinson, who has quickly emerged as one of the nation’s most intriguing prospects at his position in his class. Feldman praised Robinson, comparing him athletically to Dallas Cowboys’ edge rusher and former Nittany Lion, Micah Parsons.
In 2022, Robinson totaled 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Robinson is one of four Nittany Lions defenders to crack the list.
He is accompanied on the list by linebacker Abdul Carter and defensive tackles Jordan van den Berg and Zane Durant. Last season, Penn State only allowed 18.2 points per game, held opponents to 105.2 rushing yards per game, and totaled 37 sacks. All three of these numbers were top 15 in the country.
Even with all these names, there’s one notable omission from his ranking: cornerback Kalen King.
King was among the best cornerbacks in college football in 2022, and he ranked third in the country in passes defended (21) and pass breakups (18). With one of the most athletically imposing defenses in the nation, it’s easy to believe they can return to the same dominance.
On offense, Penn State sported two of Feldman’s “Freaks” in running back Nick Singleton and offensive tackle Olu Fashanu.
A season ago, Singleton became just the third freshman in Penn State history to rush for over 1,000 yards, and he set the program record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman (12). Singleton’s dominance on the ground as a true freshman was aided by Fashanu’s dominance as a blocker. Fashanu opted to return to Penn State for the 2023 season, and he’s ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft by Pro Football Network’s Ian Cummings.
Penn State’s Freaks Are the New Norm
This level of athletic dominance by Penn State isn’t anything new. The Nittany Lions have made a habit of regularly developing freak athletes that make waves on the college field before leaping into the NFL.
There are two elements that have helped Penn State be so successful at acquiring all these “freaks”: recruiting and developing.
Since James Franklin took over as the head coach of Penn State in 2014, the Nittany Lions have had a top-15 recruiting class in every single season but two, according to 247Sports.
There has been an emphasis on bringing talent into the program every season. Between 2015 and 2023, Penn State brought in eight five-star recruits and 117 four-star recruits, also according to 247Sports.
Recruiting talent is only half the journey, as Penn State has some of the best talent development for its best athletes over the last decade.
Dwight Galt III was the Nittany Lions’ performance enhancement coach from 2014 until his retirement in 2021. He used his multiple decades of experience as a strength and conditioning coach to help develop talent at Penn State.
During his time with Penn State, Galt oversaw 31 players drafted into the NFL between the 2015 and 2021 NFL Drafts, including Parsons and Saquon Barkley. After retiring, the program’s current performance enhancement coach, Chuck Losey, succeeded Galt.
Losey had coached under Galt at Penn State since 2014 and worked with Franklin at Vanderbilt before his time at Penn State. Since taking over, Losey has seen similar success with players like Jahan Dotson and Joey Porter Jr.
Heading into 2023, Penn State dominated Feldman’s “Freaks List,” but this has been a development in the making. Penn State has been trending in this direction for nearly a decade, culminating in a talented team with plenty of preseason hype.
The Nittany Lions have produced at least five drafted players every season since 2017, and the influx and output of “freak” talent through Happy Valley is becoming a new norm.